“What is college like?”

Is it just four years of your life that you will spend a lot of money on, trying to be an adult, knowing that your family and financials are a safety blanket which you don’t need to immediately worry about? Is it the four years of your life when you discover that a science or an art that you wanted to make your life about is something you detest completely and that you’d rather do something else? Is it the guilt of exploring better options out there with someone else’s money or hoping that whatever else you find better be an investment which brings returns? Or the shame that you are wasting youth and time and emotion in trying to attach a few meaningful letters after your name when the trauma is done?

Is it the beauty of discovering independence? Of learning that sometimes loneliness can evolve into quiet nights of watching police sirens blink away three blocks from your dorm window and feel comforted knowing that at least you will never grow into that person? Of learning that there are times when the sun rises and you are trapped into a conversation that is stripping your soul of lies? Of discovering the true dimensions of people as they show and hide different aspects of themselves?

Is it the competence of doing your laundry right? With the colored clothes sorted into one pile and the white things in another? Is it realizing that the high of managing to complete your gym routine, homework, breakfast and room-cleaning before 10:00AM is the same as the turning out to be the only student in class who scored 94% and that this, in turn, is the same as being asked out by that shy boy who you secretly crave looks at your eyes more often than he does by hiding them behind his fringe? Is it the awkwardness that will follow when you realize that he thinks you’re a creep and that the line between romantic and weird is very fine? That superficiality is sometimes heavier than souls and thicker than the measurement of your chest-waist-hips? Is it wondering if they are even on the same quantifiable scale?

Is it just the four years of eating extremely oily pizza and a ton of bagels and oceans of cream cheese knowing that you’re one of those few girls who will graduate with your body looking the same, but being exhausted from within, deprived of the enforced maternal nutrition at home? Is it just the four years of coming across people who will have parents who have been in jail, who will have parents who will have cheated on each other, who will have parents who are unable to fund their child’s education for lack of understanding their child’s major, who have parents who have only dreamed of higher education? Is it the four years of learning why alcohol, drugs, drinking, sex and depression, TV, badly-edited writing and five consecutive bottles of Nutella are extremely dangerous because these things let a person run away from the reality that will inevitably slap them in the face? 

Is it the pride with which you will tell your stories back home, by saying, yes, I go to this college and how prestigious it is and look at all the things I’ve accomplished? Will that matter so much to their glazed over eyes who are waiting for you to tell them that you have not found affections in a “foreign” boy and are keeping yourself chaste and perfect and naively unaware of things like depression, suicide and bars? Will that matter so much when you try to explain what your research project is about when they are too busy trying to use you to inspire their own children into poring over books they hate? Is it the shame you will feel when they will hold you to be the perfect example, and your conscience coughs loudly at the back of your head, knowing that at their age you were no better than them and the atrocities you have committed to yourself and to others are nothing compared to what this sheltered oppressed being can comprehend at the age of 13/14/15?

Is it praying that your “gentle” preview of life will carry you though right when each semester sets fire to a different part of your soul and carves mountains out of another? Is it praying that this accompaniment to adulthood is not just the engineering degree but also the capacity to negotiate, argue, deduce and rationalize or even philosophize life into terms that you will feel less terrified of running away from? Is it the many nights of parties in cramped rooms and bent objectives bouncing off the walls as stress, tension of unexplained natures, political and sexual maneuvers and finding the right to belong in an ocean that sweeps in the new everyday?

Is it realizing that you are no longer a child and yet, a child of the world?

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Nostophobia

Frequent readers of this blog will know that I usually post in a flurry at the end of the holiday season, not knowing when I’ll be able to give free rein to my writing. I also sometimes tend to pad it up with inspirational messages about how the holidays have changed me and how next semester will be vastly different from the last and all the mechanisms I have established in place to prevent me from making the same mistakes as before. 

This summer, I was supposed to be interning, and taking a summer class and working on research all through three months. Until my parents put their foot down and insisted that I stay at home, get my food and sleep schedule on track and work passively. I enjoyed the traditional vacations that most families schedule every few years, and honestly, I hadn’t been on a holiday since 2008. For a while, my life seemed more defined with experiences and photos and maps and managing my parents, than it appeared to be of deadlines.

But I was terrified that I would lose the punishing schedule that I had imposed on myself. I believed that if I wasn’t overworked and sleep-deprived, I wasn’t living my life right. When my parents insisted that I stay at home with them, I was sure that I was going to have the most boring and unproductive summer of the lot. I felt insecure about the fact that all my friends had secured internships at fancy places (J.P Morgan, McKinsey, Con Edison, etc) while I was living the pampered lifestyle:  occasionally writing code, blogging and swimming. 

Except now, the three months are over and I find myself saying something that I never thought would pass my mouth. “I don’t want the holidays to end.” I don’t want the holidays to end because I have grown so much healthier and happier since these months and I’m scared that once the onslaught of college begins, my “disciplined schedule” as maintained by my parents will not withstand the vagaries of undergraduate life. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am trying to internalize it so I don’t have to be dependent on close monitoring all the time. But I also don’t want to go back because of differences in my friend group. I have mandated that I find new friends this semester, people who truly make me happy and feel worthy, instead of continually trying to please a group of people who abuse my compassion.

But it’s the third year of college and work will be upon me faster and heavier than before. How am I supposed to find the time to make new friends? Or am I destined to feel alone as the deadlines slam into my days with unstoppable ferocity? 

Hence the nostophobia. I want to go back. I really do miss college, work, classes and some people. But I know I will miss these moments too. I just don’t know which one I will miss more. 

On how the competence of a human being can be condensed to a number

http://www.hindustantimes.com/lifestyle/books/chetan-bhagat-tells-us-a-short-story/article1-436685.aspx

I read this story and while I don’t actively devour Chetan Bhagat’s literature, this piece resonated a little too deeply with being a prospective college student and wondering if scoring a 90%, or even 92 or 95% aggregate is ever good enough.

After I read this story, I reflected a bit on how far my life has come. I study in a prestigious Ivy League university now, yet I complain about my struggling GPA (which is still better than most), how difficult life is and how stressed out I always am. I forget that I have survived worse moments of uncertainty.

Today, I’m sensitive about the fact that my GPA is not 4.0. I forget that there was a time when I had scored 10/50 in a very important Math test. I constantly hear from my peers around me (blame me for being easily influenced) about how their GPA is at 3.9, 3.8 or even 4.0. I forget that there are many others among that privileged 3% admission rate who have GPA’s of 2.0. Columbia’s own Nobel Prize Winner had a GPA of 2.8 when he graduated. But I can’t seem to stop beating myself up for that fact that I’m not on the Dean’s list, even though I have two research projects and a hackathon victory under my modest belt.

The following paragraph summarizes the awful whispers I pick up from those who frequent job fairs and recruitment events and networking events.

“Jobs look for GPA and how good you are at what you do, combined with all your extra-curriculars and how well you present yourself and how essentially superhuman you are because you need to differentiate yourself from everyone else. Nobody wants ordinary. You’ll never get anywhere without a big name on your resume. Don’t hold back from writing your skills on your resume. Don’t be a machine. Show them you’re a human too. Laugh, smile, dress like so and flatter like so. “Network”. “Connect”. Know people and stay on their mind because that’s the only way you’re going to make money and be someone.”

Obviously, the fact that making it to Columbia is a difficult task for many and the hardships they may have gone to be there and the person who they truly are will never make it to that crisply edited, sharply formatted glossy paper that hides among a possible million more. So you’re applying to be a computer science researcher or technology developer? You’re from Columbia? Okay, so you’re good.  But that GPA isn’t 4.0. Like the protagonist of the story, being good is never as worthy as being good enough.

There were so many other subtle hints in this portrayal that stuck out to me. The indirect ways parents hint at their children, and the sometimes futile lies children have to maintain in order to preserve the social fabric. The idea of your classmates having girlfriends and/or boyfriends and wondering if the elusive and confusing process will remain as awkward as ever.

But maybe in the quest of trying to fit in and stand out and find multiple identities and be good at something, I’ll find the way to strike that balance. And maybe that will be more than a number, let alone in base 10 than in binary. Maybe that could be an elegant function whose solutions I still seek.